Left and Right

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LEFT AND RIGHT . Symbolic differentiations of left and right are virtually universal cultural classifications among humankind. Research interest in the asymmetrical functioning of the left and right hemispheres of the brain and in the dominance of right-sided dexterity arose about a century ago. From a growing body of clinical evidence a variety of theories have evolved about the presumed physiological and neurological causes of right versus left preferences and performances in human behavior. Less well studied is the significance of right and left in the matrix of textual and contextual symbols that comprise a given culture. In 1909, French sociologist Robert Hertz established the first genuine social-science approach in his article "The Preeminence of the Right Hand: A Study of Religious Polarity" by making the following observation: "To the right hand go honors, flattering designations, prerogatives: It acts, orders, and takes. The left hand, on the contrary, is despised and reduced to the role of a humble auxiliary: By itself it can do nothing; it helps, it supports, it holds " (Hertz, in Needham, 1973, p. 3). Since Hertz's pioneering study, social scientists have explored the religious polarity of left and right in both literate and nonliterate societies, although the bulk of research has been on nonreligious aspects. As E. E. Evans-Pritchard has observed, much work on the cultural significance of left and right symbolism remains to be done.

The views advanced by Hertz on left and right have been affirmed by Émile Durkheim, Marcel Mauss, E. E. Evans-Pritchard, and Rodney Needham, among others, and may be summarized as follows. First, a preference for the right hand or foot to perform the noble tasks of life, in religious rituals as well as ordinary social intercourse, is widely observable among world cultures, both civilized and primitive. Conversely, the left hand and foot are regularly assigned secondary, converse, and even debasing tasks. From these widely observed sets of asymmetrical behavior it is often concluded that it is characteristic of human beings to regard the right side as exalted and auspicious and the left, by contrast, as despised and inauspicious.

A second characteristic of much of the ethnographic literature on left and right is the general tendency to see their opposition as part of a generic capacity in humans to classify the world around them and to derive the meanings of things in relation to their opposites. Thus, the binary oppositions of right and left, male and female, positive and negative, cooked and raw, up and down, noble and ignoble, and sacred and profane, indicate some of the fundamental modes human groups use to organize the world and to determine how to act within it. The structural properties of these schemata become more complex and interesting when, for example, sacrality, right-sidedness, and maleness are associated in some contexts. Is asymmetrical binary opposition a fundamental feature of the mind and of social symbolization and thus a key to unlock the cultural codes of left-versus right-sidedness in those religions where it appears?

Associated with the question of asymmetrical binary oppositions, of which left and right differentiation is presumed to be a species, are other issues that still divide scholars. One is the cultural versus the physiological (or neurological) question of origins. Are humans primarily and by preference right-handed because the corresponding left hemisphere of the brain predominates, or do the left hemisphere and right hand function as they do in most cases because of cultural conditioning? Another issue concerns the differences among societies regarding left-and-right symbolism and the increasing amount of evidence that in some cases the left is considered to be more auspicious than the right.

It is not the primary task of religious studies to attempt to answer these questions, however important they may be in establishing or confuting theories propounded by neurologists, psychologists, and ethnographers. The historian of religions works with a variety of textual and contextual materials, such as sacred texts and rituals, religious worldviews, and symbols. In this regard the interest of religious studies in left and right symbolism lies more in the interface of textual and cognitive valuations of left versus right with contextual and behavioral patterns.

The evidence for left and right symbolism in Islam was examined by Joseph Chelhod in a 1964 essay titled "A Contribution to the Problem of the Right, Based upon the Arabic Evidence" (Chelhod, in Needham, 1973). As Chelhod and other Near Eastern specialists have shown, the differential roles of the left and right hands were already entrenched in ritual practices among Arabs at the sacred shrine in Mecca prior to the seventh century ce and shared some common characteristics with ancient Near Eastern practices. Much of the scholarship on pre-Islamic Arabian culture has adduced the probability that a solar cult gave directional orientation to ritual activities at the Kaʿbah in Mecca, where one would face toward the east in ritual activities. Correspondingly, the Arabic word for "right" is yamīn (root, ymn ), whose cognates include terms that mean "south," the prosperous land of the Yemen, and "felicity" (yumn ); the word for "left," on the contrary, is shimāl, whose cognates and synonyms include terms for "bad luck," "north," and Syria, a land associated with ill omen.

The Qurʾān assigns auspiciousness to the right side, including a person's right hand and foot and the symbolic circumstance of being situated on the right side of God. Corresponding inauspiciousness and servility are assigned to the left. As in other civilizations, so in the early Islamic culture of Arabia certain ambiguities clouded a clear-cut association between right and left with good and evil, respectively. For example, Chelhod points out that the Qurʾanic term yasār means both "left" and "prosperity." Does this constitute evidence of the inversion of values that W. Robertson Smith and others saw in the sacred as distinct from secular realms? Whether or not this is so, the solution to the problems raised by linguistic evidence lies in a study of the semantic fields of terms for "right" and "left" that would determine in what contexts such terms are used, especially in cases where single lexical items seem on the surface not to conform to general cultural pairings of right with good and auspiciousness and left with bad and inauspiciousness.

Early Islamic textual and more recent ethnographic evidence further attest to such practices as setting out for the mosque or on the pilgrimage to Mecca on the right foot but setting out on the return trip from these places on the left foot; eating and drinking with the right hand but touching the genitals for toilet activities with the left hand; seating one's honored guest to one's right, and so forth. Today, non-Arab Muslims of Africa and Asia generally adhere to the normative Islamic patterns for behavior involving the right and the left side. Thus, for example, in Indonesia it is considered offensive to pass food to another with the left hand. The fact is, however, that in both Africa and Asia forms of left-and-right cultural symbolism preceded the historical arrival of Islam, and hence the role of Islam was probably that of linking local meanings and myths about left-and-right symbolism with the more universal meanings of the great tradition.

The application of Hertz's thesis on the religious polarity of left and right in China was discussed by the French sociologist Marcel Granet in 1933 (trans. in Needham, 1973). The Chinese textual and ethnographic evidence differs from that of the Western monotheistic religions insofar as the Chinese regard the left side as a place of honor even though right-handedness is encouraged by social convention. Granet found that preference for the left or right varies in traditional Chinese culture, depending upon the context. For example, children are taught to eat with the right hand, but males greet others by bowing, presenting the left hand and covering the right, while females reverse the pattern, concealing the left hand and exposing the right. Male/female differentiation of right-and-left symbolic acts corresponds to the yin/yang metaphysical polarity. Left, yang, and male are associated symbols in opposition to right, yin, and female. The opposition is not diametric, however, but circumstantial, conforming to strict social codes and rites that determine etiquette throughout society. Thus, at the levels of the universe (cosmos), society as a whole (etiquette), and the human body (physiology), left and right are differentiated, though both are valued in their symbolic association with yin and yang, sky and earth, male and female as opposing but complementary forces in the universe. The Chinese case differs from most others, because neither side of the interactive polarity is consistently valued over the other; preference is determined by context.

Tribal societies exhibit left-and-right symbolic differentiation at the levels of cosmic myth, social interaction, and physiological performance. In Africa, for example, there is greater similarity to the patterns described in Islamic culture. South of the Sahara, ethnic groups tend to associate the right side with male sexuality, moral good, good fortune, and auspicious directions and orientations, while the left side is associated with female sexuality, evil, misfortune, and inauspicious or bad places. H. A. Wieschhoff provided several examples of these patterns, noting that in Cameroon and parts of northeast Africa some ethnic groups regard the left hand as symbolic of good fortune and the right of misfortune (Wieschhoff, in Needham, 1973).

Although the Chinese evidence fits less well with Hertz's widely accepted "exalted right/debased left" theory, Granet's approach to right-and-left symbolism in Chinese culture illumines more appropriately the religious significance of right-and-left differentiation. Continuing research on the different roles of the right and left hemispheres of the brain in neurology and cognitive psychology may eventually reveal the extent to which right- or left-handedness is physiologically determined. The religious character of such symbolism lies, however, in the combined cultural media of cosmology, ritual performance, and social interaction. The study of right-and-left religious symbolism must take all of the textual and contextual fields into account in order to appreciate the full dynamics of the symbolism for each group studied.


The articles referred to above can be found in Right and Left: Essays on Dual Symbolic Classification, edited by Rodney Needham (Chicago, 1973). Still valuable is Ira S. Wile's Handedness: Right and Left (Boston, 1934). Bibliographic references to right and left symbolism and physiological differentiation are generally classified under the heading "right and left," while "left and right" normally designates political subject matters.

New Sources

Crandall, David P. "Female over Male or Left over Right: Solving a Classificatory Puzzle among the Ovahimba." Africa 66, no. 3 (1996): 327348.

Dalton, C. W. The Right Brain and Religion: A Discussion of Religion in the Context of the Right- and Left-Brain Theory. Lakeside, Calif., 1990.

Lytton, Ursula. "Aspects of Dual Symbolic Classification: Right and Left in a Japanese Kyu-Dojo." Asian Folklore Studies 48, no. 2 (1989): 277291.

Richard C. Martin (1987)

Revised Bibliography